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Merrill Markoe: My Favorite Moments of Late Night With David Letterman

15 minute read
Merrill Markoe was the co-creator and original head writer of “Late Night With David Letterman.”

On this, the eve of the finale of a show I had a hand in creating, I have been repeatedly asked to offer a few thoughts. Toward that end, I have compiled the following group of clips. All of them are from shows you probably haven’t seen in a long time, if you ever saw them at all. They are from the early ‘80s when “Late Night With David Letterman” was on NBC. As you may know, when Dave switched networks in ’93, NBC locked it’s version of the shows in a vault deep in the bowels of Area 51, just catty corner to where the U.S. government hides its photographic proof of UFOs. They were meant to remain there until the end of time, but that was before YouTube was created, in 2005, and the end of time just kind of came and went.

Before you start clicking on the links, I feel obligated to warn you that these are NOT the most-loved or most-requested clips on anyone’s list but my own. They have been selected for only two reasons: 1. because they contain moments I have thought of repeatedly over the years, sometimes with giddy amazement, and 2. I was able to find them online.

Some of them I had no hand in creating. Some of them I did. A few of them I can’t believe we got on the air. All of them were brought to life with the help of a great staff full of talented people who got the joke and played along accordingly.

A final word before we begin: These clips vary in quality. Some were videotaped by fans on their home VCR equipment. To increase your enjoyment, it may be necessary to pretend that you actually prefer watching blurry images and listening to uneven sound.

1. This first clip is from the “The David Letterman Show,” a LIVE NBC morning show that lasted 19 weeks with me as its head writer. During its run, we created the DNA used to launch the first incarnation of Dave’s late night show. However, the creative credit for this clip belongs entirely to the fevered brain of Andy Kaufman who somehow manages, in the space of under eight minutes, to willfully break every unwritten rule and expectation for a talk-show guest. After opening with an anecdote about his floundering career, during which he seems to be begging the host for sympathy, he repeatedly reprimands the audience for laughing at him and displays symptoms of a lingering cough. The bit ends with Andy heading into the audience to try and collect some spare change. Its all so very very wrong that the mere thought of it has been making me laugh for 35 years.(For bonus points, I am in this clip standing by the studio door.)

2. The afore mentioned morning show provided quite a few moments that were so surreal I sometimes think I’m making them up. Chief among them was the time that we devoted a big part of the show to an elaborate 50th wedding anniversary party for Sam and Betty Kotinoff, a couple from Long Island who had written us a letter. Because the party details were arranged by a flamboyant caterer, it was meant to hit a high point when sparklers were lit and synthetic rose petals dropped from the ceiling. Unfortunately, when the rose petals hit the sparklers, chemistry took over, and they immediately transformed into little flaming puddles of plastic. Small fires broke out. The Kotinoffs began subtly stamping them out with their shoes. Soon, stage hands stepped in with fire extinguishers. But the always witty and cool-headed Hal Gurnee, the show’s director, brought in a handheld camera to capture it all in an artistic low-angle shot. Meanwhile, Dave just continued announcing who the guests would be tomorrow as a wedding singer, stationed behind him, crooned “Can’t Smile without You.” It was as close to being on the set of a Fellini movie as I have ever come.

After the show ended, Dave was very upset about the possible repercussions of setting a network show on fire. Gravely we went into his office to watch the incriminating footage. However when we saw how funny it all looked, we began laughing. We continued to break out laughing about it for weeks.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a clip of the Kotinoff party. However I did find another surreal morning-show clip. Obviously taped by a fan, it is the last segment of the very last morning show before cancellation. We had only one more day to do the show, and we were still LIVE. So throughout the broadcast we showed the pictures and resumes of all of the newly unemployed staff members. Then in the final moments, Harve Mann, a singer we had previously hired to sing special lyrics written for show’s theme, serenades the audience with some new lyrics we worked on that morning about the show that would replace us: “Las Vegas Gambit.” Staff members, dressed as the playing cards that would be part of that new game show, danced around the set. I don’t think anyone will argue with me when I say that a more deranged or goofily hostile piece of video has ever aired on a network in the name of pleasant morning entertainment.

3. “The Dubbed Show” was an idea by the brilliant Randy Cohen who decided to try to bring something new to a standard re-run. The show remains the same in all respects except one: It contains a perfectly synched new audio track dubbed by the people who dub foreign movies into English. To make this happen, Randy painstakingly created a script of the original show to give to professional voice-over actors who would dub it from English into other English. Watching Dave and his guests say the same things, only in slightly different voices, made me question everything I ever knew to be true in the universe. What you are about to see is Dave and Sandra Bernhard vocally dubbed by others.

4. Everything about Chris Elliott’s unique and idiosyncratic contributions to the show have always made me laugh. We hired Chris when he was about 21 and employed as a tour guide at Rockefeller Center. It didn’t take him long to start making appearances on the show as a variety of “characters” that he wrote for himself. “The Guy Under the Seats,” who came up through a trap door in the floor of the aisle in the audience, was the first of many. All of them were so hilarious that I almost chose the one below at random, but a Google search will allow you to inspect the rest of them. Here is the introductory appearance of a character he created for a week of shows we taped in Los Angeles. Chris called this one “The Laid Back Guy.”

5. “They Took My Show Away” was an “educational film” written by the reliably hilarious Tom Gammill and Max Pross. In it, Dave explains the frightening and sometimes cruel realities of show cancellation to a sad and confused little boy.

6. I had the idea of doing a Late Night “anthem” because at that particular moment in the ’80s I noticed a proliferation of a certain kind of heart-tugging montage in advertising. These ads were always a combination of warm family moments and nature scenes set to a poignant yet uplifting emotional piece of music. Not until a logo appeared at the very end was there any way to tell if what they were selling was a bank, a phone company, a cake mix, a soft drink, or a television series. So writer Jeff Martin and I assembled an anthem for the show we called “Late Night World of Love.” The multi-ethnic chorus of children was a nod to all the “We are the World” knocks-offs that also seemed to be everywhere at the time.

7. “New Catch Phrases” is another idea that started with me but went on to be group written by everyone. Once again it was a take on advertising and television in our culture and the way certain frequently repeated slogans make their way into every day life. At the time everyone seemed to be quoting a commercial that starred an old lady who looked into the camera and said “Where’s the beef?” So we decided to try to start a catch phrase, all by itself and let an audience vote for their favorite. After the winning entry, “They pelted us with rocks and garbage” (contributed by Matt Wickline) was selected, the show spent the rest of the week working out ways to include it and hopefully help it gain traction. I still have a shirt and a button that someone sent us.

8. Every now and then, in the middle of the night, “Chinese Restaurant College Bowl” comes to me like a strange hallucination. It owns a place in my heart for its sheer labyrinthine craziness. Assembled by Tom Gammill, Max Pross and myself, it started out as an idea about staging unusual reunions. We planned to go up to random people as they stepped out of an elevator, get all of their names and phone numbers, and then reunite the whole elevator on the air. It ended up being about two Chinese restaurants that we had seen somewhere in New York City that both had names that sounded like colleges. One was called Hunan Wok University, because it was on University Avenue. The other was called Szechuan State, because it was on State street. From there it morphed into bringing customers from each of the restaurants on to the show to play College Bowl and answer questions about the respective restaurant menus. Having decided on that, we felt we needed to add a tour of the two campuses and a Chinese food delivery race between the two restaurant competitors. And so we did.

9. “Dog Poetry” was something I wrote and directed when we had a little free time with the crew at the end of a remote. In it, my dog Stan recites a poem to summer. It also contains a track of Stan’s noises that I tried to synch with the subtitles. After it was finished, it went unaired for quite a while. Dave was very ambivalent. He didn’t think it would get laughs. I finally weaseled it onto the show by creating a segment called “Pieces that will never be on the show,” where I grouped it with other things that had never aired. To my enormous relief, it played really well. All these years later people still come up to me and repeat the line “My empty dish mocks me.” Weirder still, I think “Dog Poetry” might be at ground zero for dog videos. The Internet didn’t hit for another 15 years. Not everyone with a dog had access to film production the way they do now.

There are a million other funny little moments for which no video clips can be found online. From time to time I think of the incredibly peculiar objects we had made to order for an assortment of comedy pieces we referred to as “wacky props.” To create these, we commonly paged through the mail-order catalogs of the time, finding inspiration in their approach to merchandizing and copy writing. Sometimes the results appeared on the show as “New Gift Ideas.” Sometimes we grouped them into something more seasonal or topical.

Kathleen Ankers, who appeared on the show as the Bookmobile lady, ran the art department and would patiently find a way to manufacture a decent working version of whatever it was we requested. Of the hundreds of crazy things I saw her make, some of the ones that have stayed with me were by the always brilliant George Meyer. A few times a year, I think fondly of “The Giant Doorknob,” George’s take on what is for sale in “joke catalogs.” The copy George wrote for it still makes me laugh.

“In Mexico it’s El Knob Grande. Here in the U.S. we call it the giant phony doorknob and it’s a panic. This over-sized jumbo knob is much larger than it oughta be. In fact, its just plain big! Simply attach it to an ordinary door and then wait for the fireworks. Your friends will flip when they see for themselves how truly big a doorknob can be.” I also think frequently of Andy Breckman’s “Perpetual Birthday Card” which read “Happy Birthday today and on this day every year for the rest of your life.”

Merrill Markoe

Bill Murray is Dave’s first guest (1982)

For Letterman, Murray has dressed like Liberace, a Kentucky Derby jockey and a Renaissance fop. His first visit set the tone of the show when, after a long rant in which Murray decried the host’s “mind games,” Letterman responded, “Now that you’re well-known, is it harder to be funny?”

Andy Kaufman challenges wrestler Jerry Lawler to a match (1982)

In a hoax bit, comedian Kaufman got pro wrestler Lawler to slap him in the face as Letterman smirked behind the desk. The stunt confirmed Dave’s status as a comedy chaos magnet—a master at remaining calm while hysteria swirled around him.

Dave gets dunked in a suit made of 3,400 Alka-Seltzers (1984)

What some do for science, Dave did for comedy. With a snorkel and goggles in place, Dave was dunked into a fizzy experiment in laughter. He’s helpless in his harness, floating in an effervescent water tank surrounded by the volcanic chaos of bubbles. The experiment was duplicated with the likes of sponges, marshmallows and velcro, showing how far Dave would go for a laugh.

The very first top 10 list (1985)

“Heats.” “Rice.” “Moss.” These were the initial entries in the show’s first Top 10 list, “Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas.” Sometimes presented by politicians, celebrities, sports champions and everyday heroes, the lists—more than 4,600 of them—became Letterman’s signature bit.

Cher calls Dave an a–hole (1986)

Dave’s meta-deconstruction of the late night form led to uncomfortable truths — such as in this segment, where an interview with Cher centered on why it took four years for her to agree to appear on the show. Her casual reasoning — “because I thought you were an a–hole” — became part of the show’s disarming folklore.

Madonna won’t stop stop cursing (March 31, 1994)

Letterman often had a flirty effect on female guests, causing many to leave filters at the door. Here, Madonna and Dave giggled and teased, discussing their underwear and making innuendos. Madonna sweetly told Dave he was a “sick f-ck.” Never has that term sounded quite so loving.

Drew Barrymore flashes Dave for his birthday (April 12, 1995)

The Late Show with David Letterman
Alan Singer—CBS/Getty Images

In a ’90s version of Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” a 20-year-old, braless Barrymore surprised Dave with a dirty dance on his desk, followed by lifting her shirt. Dave’s reaction—confused but joyful surprise—contributed to the buzz.

Dave gets personal (2000 & 2009)

It’s one thing to be a great host with a knack for comedic moments. It’s another entirely to tap into the national psyche. Dave was long regarded as the king of irony, but that died in 2000, when he dropped all comedic facades to pay tribute to the surgical team that saved his life. It was a rare but powerful moment when Dave the host became Dave the man—a feeling that would be replicated as his messy personal cheating scandal went public nine years later—and his brittle realness drew us even closer to the legend we thought we knew.

Dave gives a heartfelt post-9/11 monologue (2001)

The first late-night host to return to TV, Letterman gave viewers real catharsis following a national tragedy. His eight-minute introduction was halting, honest and vulnerable, tapping into our collective fear and sadness. By the end, he also provided what we needed most: courage and hope.

Joaquin Phoenix is bizarre and rambling (Feb 2009)

Phoenix devised a meta-hoax that found him growing a long beard and claiming to have left acting for hip-hop. Included in this, for reasons not quite clear, was appearing on Letterman like he had no idea what was happening around him. Letterman fired questions at Phoenix despite the guest’s inability to string together a sentence. Ending the interview with, “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight,” cemented the segment as a classic.

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